Two Alt-Rock Giants Add It Up, Find Whole Is Less than Sum of Parts

Sample song titles: "Helpful Monkey Wallpapers Entire Home," "Clever Chemist Makes Chewing Gum from Soap" and "Three-Year-Old Genius Graduates High School at Top of Her Class."

I recently saw this album listed erroneously on some web site as Sad

But True. Was it Freud who said that there are no mistakes?

Strange But True is a collection of 22 tiny tabloid tunes

recorded in 1994 and 1996. Jad Fair, leader of the band Half Japanese,

speaks brother David Fair's (also of Half Japanese) words over accompaniment from Yo La Tengo. Lightweight in the extreme, one can get a sense of the regard the participants might have had for the proceedings in the credit for the

'96 songs: "recorded by a guy whose name none of us can remember." The

guy doesn't mind.

Actually, the lyrics are cheery and charming, a testament to

what one can accomplish after sitting down with a copy of the Weekly

World News, a jug of coffee, pen and paper. Sample song titles:

"Helpful Monkey Wallpapers Entire Home," "Clever Chemist Makes Chewing

Gum from Soap," "Three-Year-Old Genius Graduates High School at Top of

Her Class," and one of my favorites, "National Sports Association Hires

Retired English Professor to Name New Wrestling Holds" (among them "A

slow dance with trouble/ Appointment with pain/ And a dunk in the

Devil's teacup/ King Tut's crunch/ And the rubber wrist twist").

Fair's delivery is dripping with deadpan sincerity, if lacking in

emotional diversity. And Yo La Tengo sound like the talented group they

are, spinning out song after song in a varied array of moods and

textures. Many of the '96 songs have the late-night fuzz of much of

YLT's last full-length album, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As

One. (One can't help but wonder what the group would have made of

the tunes outside of this collaboration.)

But listening to Strange But True is a frustrating, off-putting

experience because the songs never really gel -- the words sit on top

like icing, the music a dense cupcake underneath.

The whole enterprise brought to mind a Velvet Underground song, "The

Gift," which marries an exceedingly dry John Cale recitation of a

shaggy-dog story to a pulsating VU groove -- a twist of the balance knob

one way or the other on that track and you can isolate either the music

or the words. In the case of Strange But True, you don't even

have to touch a knob; it's easy enough to isolate one or the other in

your mind.

Like "The Gift," the songs here are not ones I'll go back to very often,

especially considering all of the excellent work available from Yo La

Tengo and Half Japanese. It's hard now to remember most of them.

Exceptions to all this include "Shocking Fashion Statement Terrorizes

Town," in which Jad actually sings/screams above a feedback-laden

rocker, and "Feisty Millionaire Fills Potholes with Hundred-Dollar

Bills," at 2:41 twice as long as many of the songs here. This ballad,

the album's closer, has a chance to build some momentum; the quietness

allows the words to sink in to the music some.

Sadly, though, these songs can't save Strange But True.